From manufacturing to transportation to retail, companies across virtually every industry are supporting their digital transformations by moving to a cloud-based infrastructure. The shift from on-premises software to cloud services has been revolutionary to the process of application development and deployment, especially software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications. But using the cloud often isn’t enough. You need to leverage cloud-native applications to benefit from the improved agility, availability, scalability, and overall performance they provide.
Cloud-native architectures have become the standard for modern software development. But along with that popularity has come uncertainty. What, exactly, does it mean for an application to be cloud native? Definitions of “cloud native” are as varied as the number of cloud-native applications operating today. But there are some standard, easy-to-understand principles that are valuable when looking at building a cloud-native application.
The meaning of cloud native
Cloud-native applications are software systems that are built with the dynamic, scalable, and highly available properties of the cloud as guiding principles. The cloud-native application architecture is a response to the challenges software developers face when working with legacy approaches to software development. Cloud-native applications specifically:
- Utilize dynamic resource allocation in the cloud. This means the application’s footprint will vary in size depending on the demands currently placed on it, and the resources consumed will be adjusted to match the resources needed at that current point in time.
- Utilize service or microservice architectures. Using microservices allows application size and complexity to scale easily and in manageable ways.
- Are containerized. Use of containers allows services to be deployed in different environments quickly and easily without complex dependency management concerns.
- Orchestrate services using Kubernetes. Kubernetes, the de-facto standard for container orchestration and management, launches containers, sets up communications among containers, monitors for failures, restarts containers as needed, and resizes the application as required for current use cases. Kubernetes works closely with the cloud to create dynamically sized applications and services.
- Store and manage data in cloud-managed databases and other data services. Cloud-optimized data services that scale automatically to meet the needs of the application and make huge quantities of data readily available are standard requirements for cloud-native applications.
- Use modern development and operations workflows. This includes devops, continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD), Git source code management, and similar processes and procedures.
In addition, many but not all cloud-native applications are designed to be cloud-agnostic, or at least can be reasonably migrated to new cloud providers. In some cases, cloud-native applications work in hybrid cloud or multicloud environments.
Why use cloud-native architectures?
Cloud-native application development and operations processes and procedures create modern, best-of-breed applications because they emphasize critical aspects of the modern application experience:
Automation. Many IT resources can be wasted on manual and repetitive tasks. This includes tasks such as deployment management, running test suites, and adding, modifying, upgrading, and decommissioning hardware. Automating these tasks saves organizations a lot of time and money, delivering a huge benefit to businesses of any size. When you build applications using cloud-native principles, the process of automating your development and operations environments comes naturally.
Agility. Agility is the ability to identify and respond to change quickly. This is a crucial skill in the modern business landscape. Organizations that build and operate cloud-native applications operate more nimbly and respond to changing business and technology conditions more quickly and more effectively. Much of this comes from the dynamic nature of cloud-native architectures.
Scalability. As your business grows, the resource requirements of your application also grow. Usage spikes, such as what occurs on your busiest days, can wreak havoc on traditional application infrastructures. A highly dynamic cloud infrastructure allows applications to scale in a more automated and manageable way. But this cloud dynamicity doesn’t come free. Your application must be built to allow dynamic resource allocation to be utilized properly. Cloud-native applications are designed for this dynamic resourcing.
Availability. Availability is a measure of the percentage of time your application is available to customers for use, as opposed to being unavailable due to application outage, maintenance, or upgrade procedures. Low availability typically becomes a serious customer satisfaction issue. Maintaining high availability is critical to customer satisfaction and hence business growth.
Automatic resiliency. When application faults and failures occur, you must be able to resolve the issues and return to normal operation quickly. The more automated the recovery, the sooner your application can return to normal operation and the less disruptive the issue will be to your staff, your customers, and your business as a whole. Automated recovery helps ensure that you maintain a high level of service for your customers.
While you can’t predict when failures will occur, you can prepare your application for them. Using fault-tolerant designs and failover mechanisms in both your application and the application infrastructure, you can significantly improve your resiliency and hence your availability. Cloud-native architectures encourage and leverage automatic resiliency in modern applications.
Continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD). CI/CD is a software delivery process that automates builds, testing, and deployment, allowing software to move from development systems to live production systems more quickly and reliably. Additionally, a good CI/CD deployment strategy will deploy changes to applications in-place, without application downtime. This increases business agility, software quality, and customer responsiveness.
Without CI/CD, some companies may wait weeks or even months between deployments of new software versions. With a high-quality CI/CD system, cloud-native applications can be deployed daily, hourly, or even faster. Companies such as Amazon famously make changes to their retail application at a rate of hundreds or thousands of updates per hour (by one measure, Amazon deploys software every 1.6 seconds). This is possible only when using cloud-native applications and having solid, automated CI/CD processes in place that don’t require the application to be brought down to complete deployment.
There are many benefits to migrating to a cloud-native architecture. A cloud-native application leverages automation, agility, scalability, and automatic resiliency. It can also help you achieve continuous delivery and durability. These benefits can be applied to any type of business. You can use cloud-native principles and techniques to improve your software and make your business more efficient. Most importantly, cloud-native architecture can improve your agility, helping your business stay competitive in our fast-moving economy.